“Thump thump. Thump thump,” Nicole Sinclair-Anderson says with a smile as the room fills with nervous laughter. She’s looking for a lead soloist in her “The Art of Vocal Style” workshop. Everyone’s eyes immediately go to the floor. Maura McGroarty, my high school music teacher who I haven’t seen in years, sticks her hand up and gets up to the front of the room. “How Great is Our God” comes through her deep mezzo and the room erupts with cheers and hollers as the nervousness melts away and transforms into something much more impactful. This is gospel music — people coming together through music to find joy.
“In the congregation, sometimes I’ll stop singing,” shares Sinclair-Anderson, “so they can hear themselves. There is something really powerful about people lifting up the name of the Lord. It’s a beautiful thing.” Nicole is a featured soloist with a deep history with the Toronto Mass Choir. The contemporary gospel tradition is essentially linked with Christian churches, and it is a tradition that has been in Canada as long as it has been in the USA, and is truly global. The Toronto Mass Choir and Artistic Director Karen Burke are running the 14th PowerUp Gospel Music Festival, the biggest of its kind in Canada.
Gospel is a fusion art form, with a deep history in black communities of North America, including aspects of jazz, improv, classical, sacred, ancient, modern, and everything in between. It’s no wonder that the workshops offered by PowerUP 2018 are as diverse as Hip Hop dance to keyboards; steel pan to worship. The team, led by Karen Burke, the Artistic Director of the Toronto Mass Choir, and Associate Professor of Music at York University, have assembled an envious lineup of some of the best musicians in the region. I caught a few of the workshops.
The history of the music is essential to its delivery. Josette Leader shares the history of the steelpan before letting participants take up the sticks. Scrap metal was refined by artisans over decades, using materials available at the time. Abandoned after World War II, used and discarded oil and chemical drums on air force bases were manipulated and crafted into the instrument we know now. She invokes the names of Ellie Mannette and Winston Spree Simon, men who were leaders in the field. It is an enlightening and empowering presentation that sets up participants for a great experience, one which provides history and context before even the first note.
I stop by another session with Cassandra Powell called “Singing Together.” I’m sitting in the back, polite and subtle as possible so I can sneak out half way to check out as many workshops as I can. But then, we start doing vocal exercises. The room is full of trained and untrained singers, active singers and shower singers, and I’m just happy to sing in a room with them all. Cassandra takes us through the music by rote, but with lyrics. I sing hours a week, but I can’t remember the last time I stood around a piano with a dozen people and just sang. This is music, a group of people who don’t know each other, singing their hearts out to a song they have never heard or learned before. There’s a little buzz going in my heart, and I can’t turn it off.
Later in the evening, I get a taste of what’s to come for the finale performance. “We aren’t using books or paper today,” declares Karen Burke, “the person to your left and your right are your paper.” Fretful laughter fills the theatre, and the heartbeats of the uninitiated are going through their chests. Gospel is an art form traditionally learned by rote, with a leader demonstrating and leading each part. In classical music, one would never learn music without seeing it on paper first. There’s also no set form in gospel: repeats can go on for eons, modulations up or down, starting again from the top, or a sudden stop; it’s all possible, you just need to pay attention. With courage, the singers start in and follow Burke’s instructions.
On stage is a four-piece band playing away: Corey Butler on Piano; Daniel Cowans on Organ; JT Kim on Bass; and Kemon Emmanuel on drums. These are well-trained musicians, working from and setting the vibe of the room and Karen as they build the texture of the ensemble. “Follow the bouncing hands,” Burke says, hands bobbing above her head, dancing to loosen up the singers. She goes through diction exercises, bodywork, voice work, and vocal exercises, all while the band improvs along. The energy in the room grows, and the smiles on people’s faces are evident. Moreover, the sound quality improves as people grow into the experience. “Your music friends are forever friends,” says Burke. Looking at the smiles around the room, she may be onto something.
PowerUP 2018 Gospel Music Festival presents its Finale Concert with the Toronto Mass Choir, the PowerUp Youth Choir, the PowerUp Chorale, and the PowerUp Mass Choir on Sunday, February 25, 7 pm at Bayview Glen Church, Toronto. Details here.